Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

I recently noticed that the English translation to of Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente, edited by Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Groß, is now available from the University Press of Kentucky under the title The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I. Interestingly, Terence Zuber, who sparked much of the debate on German war planning prior to the Great War, declined to allow his chapter from the German original to be included in this English translation.1 It wasn’t his best piece anyway, far more peevish than usual, and there is plenty of his work on the supposedly nonexistent Schlieffen Plan in English anyway. Be that as it may, if Zuber’s thesis about Schlieffen’s war planning has been conclusively disproven, the assumptions underlying his work have received less attention.2 That matters because his work on Schlieffen continues to be widely read and discussed, having made a big splash when it first came out. Moreover, he continues to write and publish books on German military history.

Zuber makes his historiographical assumptions explicit on the front “about” page of his website (terencezuber.com) in a section called “Philosophy of writing military history.” The text seems to be for the benefit of potential new readers, but that does not make it any less sincere or interesting. The first important factor he lists is “the careful analysis of primary source material,” which he learned during his graduate studies in Würzburg, Germany. Zuber is talking about the venerable historiographical tradition of source criticism as taught to us in the nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke. The historian, according to Ranke, is supposed to use primary sources in order to write about “how things really were” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist).

Ranke’s ideas presuppose that the historian can read and understand the sources in context and that their meaning is immutable. If the objectivity question is much more complicated than Ranke’s phrase suggests, trying to understand “how things really were” still informs the professional historian’s ethos.3 But how do we meet this standard on the basis of imperfect documentary testimony? How do we go about reading and interpreting sources whose meanings are frequently ambiguous?

“In military history,” according to Zuber, getting at the past as it actually was “means above all the evaluation of training, doctrine, plans, intelligence estimates, orders, weather, terrain and tactical combat.” I can live with that assertion for the moment, even if it ignores important factors, especially politics. But how can Zuber be so sure that he understands the sources whereas his historical predecessors and present-day detractors do not?

His answer is simple: “As a professional infantry officer, I am able to apply twenty years of military experience to this analysis including three years with a German panzer division. I work through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation.” On the face of it, the assumption that his military background is historiographically relevant seems at least plausible insofar as the tools and techniques of warfare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not so far removed from Zuber’s Cold War–era training in land warfare that they could not be understood from that point of view.4 Moreover, German operational thought—however vaguely defined and varyingly understood—enjoyed respect on both sides of the Atlantic long after the First World War.5 But is that enough? Does Zuber’s military background really guarantee the accuracy of his analysis of military documents from an earlier era?

In his own words, Zuber “work[s] through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation.” The key element here is Zuber himself. He is playing out World War One–era military scenarios on the basis of his own military-professional judgement, which he developed in the 1970s and 1980s. This statement certainly comports with an unfortunately common assumption in military history and in writing about war more generally, namely that soldiering is a timeless phenomenon, aside from the obvious changes in technology, organization, and (if the historian is really doing his or her job) politico-economic basis. But as John Lynn shows in his book Battle, there is no such thing as the “universal soldier.” Soldiers and their institutions exist in specific historical contexts, and they change over time. These changes run deep, encompassing not only the externalities of the soldiers’ and militaries’ worlds, but also how soldiers and armies perceive the world around them.

Even if the military historian is concerned exclusively with the age-old question of how well armies fought, Lynn’s argument applies: “the way militaries think is the most fundamental element of their effectiveness.”6 We cannot understand what officers in the past were seeing and understanding, unless we first grasp how they thought. Indeed, Lynn demonstrates “the influence of conceptual culture on the reality of combat” for a variety of cultures and eras.7 The upshot of culture in general terms is that two hypothetical armies might be similarly equipped, but that in no way means they will understand the same set of circumstances similarly. The choices that the commanders of these armies perceive are shaped by culture, whether that is military culture in the broadest sense, specific aspects of military culture such as strategic culture and leadership culture, institution-specific cultures, or broader cultural “givens” that trancend the boundaries of the military.

Without accounting for culture, Zuber’s efforts to “work through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation” run the risk of amounting to little more than a war game set in the past, but based on modern-day assumptions. That is how Schlieffen studied the ancient Battle of Cannae, but it is no way for the historian to work who aspires to understand “how things really were.” Yes, there is a need for good, detail-oriented histories on war planning and military operations, but those histories must take into account the different historical contexts, including the professional culture in which operational decisions were made.

  1. See p. 14 of this translation, which was visible to me on the preview offered by Google Books. 
  2. Besides offering well-reasoned arguments based on solid evidence, the book reprints sources not considered by Zuber. See also pp. 24–52 of my dissertation, which analyzes the debate as it stood right before the German edition of this book appeared in 2006. 
  3. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988). 
  4. According to his website, Zuber served from 1970 to 1990. 
  5. See Gerhard P. Groß, Mythos und Wirklichkeit: Geschichte des operativen Denkens im deutschen Heer von Moltke d.Ä. bis Heusinger (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012). 
  6. See John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Kindle ed., preface (“Requiem for the Universal Soldier”). 
  7. Lynn, Battle, e.g., chap. 4 (last sentence of “Images and Ideals of Combat in the Age of the Enlightenment”). On war and culture, see also Wayne E. Lee, ed., Warfare and Culture in World History (New York: New York University Press, 2011), and Williamson Murray, “Does Military Culture Matter?,” Orbis 43, no. 1 (1999): 27–42. 

Who Should Groener’s Schlieffen Plan Matter To?

As I try to write an article about Groener’s understanding of war, which led him to write about Schlieffen’s supposed “recipe for victory,”, I have to keep asking myself, so what? I don’t mean this is in a negative way. I haven’t tired of this topic. But I’m not always sure why it should matter to other people.

If I look at the Schlieffen Plan debate carried out mainly in the pages of War in History, it is clear that Groener’s perspective has something to offer that audience, because the man who initiated the debate, Zuber, accuses him of having “invented” the Schlieffen Plan. That is reason enough to bring up the issue, at least for those interested in the military planning that helped cause and shape what George F. Kennan once called “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.

When I shift my perspective to understanding the German military’s role in the outbreak of World War One, I find the more nuanced perspective of German military thinking worthwhile for its own sake, but the basic story line of an inflexible plan that offered no diplomatic wiggle room and helped to ensure that Germany played the role of aggressor remains the same. So why should anyone but a specialist in military history care? Why should it matter to a general historian of modern German or European history?

The answer to this question seems to relate to our image of German history and World War I more generally. Do we blame that war on elites wedded to outdated notions about war? Do we turn them into alien “Others” who are impossible to understand in anything but stereotyped terms along the lines that we see for Britain in the wonderful comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth (but not as well-meaning, if callous fools, but instead with nefarious intentions)?

Or do we open our eyes to a less comfortable thought? What if World War I was not an aberration, but rather part and parcel of European (and Western) modernity? And what if the officers who developed and later justified Germany’s war plans were not defenders of a premodern monarchical system nor simply protecting their own reputations after Germany’s defeat, but instead were modern military professionals whose attitudes and efforts might have relevance for our understanding of modern militaries far beyond 1914?

The latter point of view could make the question of Groener’s Schlieffen Plan relevant for modern militaries and, therefore, interesting for a readership like the Journal of Strategic Studies has. But does this story only have something to tell scholars of military history and strategic studies? What about historians of Imperial Germany? I think an answer could relate to the modernity of the officer corps, the Great General Staff, and the war itself. It might also help us to understand a story whose chronological boundaries transcend political regimes, insofar as this one reaches from Wilhelmine Germany until close to the end of the Weimar Republic, if not further.

As I think along these lines, however, I see a journal article grow into something too big for the format. I would like to keep thinking about why Groener’s Schlieffen Plan might matter to general historians of Germany, but maybe I first need to concentrate on a narrower, more specialized audience. I have to write a lot more before I can know.

Refuting Straw Men and Explaining What Happened

In a recent German History forum, Paul Lerner offers an interesting aside: “I used the medical Sonderweg as more or less a straw man in my 2003 book on German psychiatry, but I found that even as I refuted it, the need to explain the unique path of German medicine kept arising.”1 These words speak to me, because I used Groener’s biography to refute the rather untenable interpretation of a “feudalized” bourgeoisie in the Kaiserreich, even in the officer corps, but taking down that straw man hasn’t offered a satisfying answer about the meaning of Groener’s middle-class cultural orientations for our understanding of the Imperial German officer corps.

I also used Terence Zuber’s interpretation of Schlieffen’s doctrine and war planning as a foil against which to compare what Groener knew about war before 1914, as well as what he experienced in the opening acts of World War I. In this case, I was somewhat more successful in saying what actually happened and why, but far too much of the analysis and narrative was aimed at Zuber. That was still necessary in 2006, when I completed the thing, but now I am not so sure. At any rate, it can’t be the only point of an article about war planning and conceptions of war in the Great General Staff.

Although it is relatively easy to demolish straw men, I can’t stop there. I also need to offer more viable explanations in their place. I have a fair idea of how to do that in the case of Imperial German war-planning, but I’m less certain about the indirect relationship between class and professionalism that led me to challenge stereotypes of the Wilhelmine officer corps in the first place.


1 Cornelius Borck et al., “Forum: The ‘German Question’ in the History of Science and the ‘Science Question’ in German History,” German History 29, no. 4 (December 2011): 631.

Catch-Up Reading and Article Idea

Am I the only one who can get years behind on relevant readings? Silly me let teaching and editing get in the way of basic readings. But maybe I’m not the only one who gets behind. As much as I appreciate discussions about how digital scholarship could speed up the dissemination of research results, sometimes I’m quite glad these results come out slowly through journals, and that these journals are available online through the library for me to look at as time permits. I’m trying to get caught back up in a more systematic way, so that I can’t use earning money as an excuse for missing new scholarship on certain topics. Still, we are talking about dead people who aren’t going anywhere, right? And the pace of historical research is slow anyway. Besides, how often are the results of historical research advanced in real time? It’s not like cable news channels and NPR are standing in line to review our output. Even blogging, tweeting, facebooking scholars have their own research projects to do, so that they can’t pay attention to every new development of their colleagues at the moment it occurs.

The Schlieffen Plan debate has been dragging on for over a decade, so maybe I shouldn’t feel too bad that I have only now read Gerhard Gross’s excellent intervention (available in both German and English), in which he explains the whereabouts and wherefores of Schlieffen sources better than anyone I have seen (at least for those deeply emersed immersed in the problem), not to mention addresses Zuber on his own chosen operational turf—albeit with politics as well as incredibly thorough archival work and careful, nuanced analysis. Now I need to make time to explore the differences between his Schlieffen and the one I see Zuber’s other historiographical opponents offering, especially regarding the question of “preventive war” in 1905. But that will have to wait. Right now, I’m more interested in Schlieffen’s image of war, what he imparted to the General Staff, and how. And I’m interested in matching Groener’s timeline against this, because what I’m really trying to get at is the evolution of Wilhelm Groener’s Schlieffen Plan, that is, how he understood and wrote about Schlieffen over the years.

By the way, how does “Wilhelm Groener’s Schlieffen Plan” sound for an article title? That’s what I’ve decided I’ll write first.

Dissertation on Internet Archive

Uploading one’s dissertation to the Internet Archive is certainly not for everybody, because publishers will not want to publish something that one can get elsewhere for free. Nonetheless, I took this big step after initially just making it available on GoogleDocs and Dropbox, where I had the freedom to delete the file. After careful consideration, I have concluded that any articles or book I write will be substantially new pieces of scholarship, not just recycled, even when I draw heavily on my empirical findings and analysis.

(I have also uploaded my MA thesis. Two articles I wrote lean heavily on it, but they also integrate a substantial body of new scholarship and reach deeper conclusions, as they should have after the passing of so much time.)

So why not make my research available to the public? I have some unusual freedom in this regard, because I am not looking for a tenure-track teaching job, which means I do not have to fulfill those kinds of requirements. Instead I can continue to engage in scholarship next to my editing and part-time teaching. And I can submit that scholarship to the scrutiny of peer review, which I intend to do, but without worrying about finding time and resources to research and write a monograph.

Want to see my theses? Visit my Writings page, which will get you there. But keep in mind that there is a difference between a thesis and a book. A thesis is written for one’s professors, and a book for a broader audience.